The possibilities of distributed intelligence are endless

New challenges for the utility industry are presented every day. Continued innovation has created a plethora of new and exciting opportunities for the utility industry across electricity, natural gas and water. For electricity, multi-directional power flows in the low voltage network, created by photovoltaics, electric vehicles, storage penetration and consumer service expectations—driven by the digital economic revolution—have propelled many changes in the utility market.

In the past several years, powerful trends have emerged that are affecting infrastructure investments and decision making by utilities and communities. More than just grid modernization, there are critical events that affect core utility infrastructure. Aging capital assets such as transmission lines, transformers, and distribution equipment not to mention the heightened imperative of grid security are affecting utilities’ capital decisions. Include the impact of environmental issues such as severe weather, resource sustainability and wildfire management, and this creates large unplanned impacts on core utility infrastructure. Now drop in a pandemic, which impacts the utility workforce, and it’s evident that modern utilities have a difficult set of challenges facing them.

These factors influence how utilities operate now and in the future. Other influences that affect the utilities’ investment decisions include:

  • The rise of renewable distributed generation (and utility use of renewables) to create a more dynamic albeit non-dispatchable source of energy.
  • An increase in the number of prosumers and rates that create multi-directional low voltage networks, including programs such as solar buyback and using electric vehicle (EV) batteries for peak flattening.
  • Rapid urbanization with increased population density which drives the need for more apartments and less single-family home ownership. There is also an emphasis on sustainability and low-impact living.
  • Consumer demand for broader energy choice such as renewables, provider, cost, etc.

In addition to the above, the evolving digital economy is creating consumer expectations of immediacy through contributors such as:

  • Same-day delivery
  • “Digital assistants” that provide instant information based on searching the internet
  • Instant access to anybody who has a cell phone as well as SMS where text exchanges happen instantly

The examples above are part of driving instant gratification expectations and the expectation of “right here, right now.” Our world is becoming the “instant” society where waiting is not tolerated—and is an irritating inconvenience.

Influences, trends and changing customer expectations have created an environment where utilities must evolve, change and upgrade infrastructure, business models and operational strategies to survive. Changing conditions are driving grid modernization and new use cases. Ignoring these indicators could lead to bankruptcy and reorganization of the utility.

On the other hand, these very indicators are also opportunities for new business models based on energy balancing, reactivity and customer focus. As a result, utilities need new tools to retain a position as a provider and enabler for energy consumers. Utilizing technology that provides comprehensive analysis at the edge of the electrical grid gives the utility a key advantage to see how changes from inside the grid (i.e., conservation voltage analysis, Volt/VAR and other use cases) affect the end consumer.

Distributed intelligence (DI)—embedding computers in the meters that perform complex processing—provides the utility with this foundation, including instant information about how energy is being used and consumed as well as specifics on any anomalies that occur within the low-voltage distribution grid. Further, in addition to detection of anomalies in the low voltage network, other examples of DI are consumer load disaggregation and more advanced capabilities such as location awareness and active demand response.

In short, a DI foundation paves the way for infinite possibilities.

Utilities and communities can work together through public-private partnerships and other means to provide advanced services and revenue streams to each other and to citizens. Services such as EV charging, water data collection and billing, water conservation and streetlight controls are some examples of advanced services. Several state regulatory bodies are pushing forward with performance-based regulations that seek to align utility financial incentives with desired outcomes and state policy goals. Performance-based regulations will result in revenue decoupling from the traditional consumption-based rates, creating a new utility business model.

Consumer energy services are an example of performance-based services that utilities can provide for their customers and include activities like leasing solar to the consumer or providing an energy arbitrage for those deregulated markets. Today, these services are being created by independent, non-utility companies that are filling in the consumer energy services space. Examples include solar plant providers that install solar panels on consumers’ homes in return for tax credits, EV charging companies that provide public EV charging stations, and smart devices providers that provide consumer energy management and education services. As usage-based rates give way to value-based services, it is more important than ever for utilities to understand the value of their offerings to consumers. These are opportunities for the utility, as they become enabled by regulatory bodies.

DI delivers the right information at the right place at the right time so that utility customers can meet the demands of the evolving market and new use cases and create value for the consumer. Enabling smart meter technology that exists at the edge of the network, using intelligent connectivity and smart devices, is critical to allow new market opportunities to evolve and blossom.

DI capability is a key pillar to building a broad solution—a DI platform applies analysis, decision making and action where it is best utilized for the most valuable outcome. The first step is the ability to create, access, control, analyze and deliver power while monitoring and reacting to local events. Power delivered or created locally must be stable, reliable and dispatchable. DI creates the framework that is required to enable active demand response, outage detection, Volt/VAR optimization, real-time local market trading and a myriad of other key use cases. DI enables these conceptual use cases to become reality.

With this shift in technology, utilities have access to high-resolution data at the endpoint or meter. That enables the capability to look at waveform data for electric, interval usage for water and gas, and potentially load disaggregation for gas and water.

Adding peer-to-peer communications between meters and devices creates the ability for devices to compare information and status. Using peer-to-peer capabilities, DI-enabled smart meters can use “bee-hive” like communications, where one device can tell another device that an event is occurring, and the other device can validate or invalidate the event as it applies to them and pass that information to other devices. That information is aggregated into an event or non-event depending on the collective outcome.

This capability at the edge of the utility network, especially the low voltage electric grid, creates the opportunity to develop advanced solutions that can support forward-thinking utilities’ medium and long-range plans. Common operation use cases include the following:

  • high impedance detection
  • residential neutral fault detection
  • load disaggregation
  • location awareness of a meter’s electrical location on the distribution grid
  • active demand response that allows for the creation of aggregated kWh demand response potential on a feeder
  • real time detection and management of EV charging

The applications mentioned above, along with new applications delivered in conjunction with intelligent connectivity on a multi-service network will create insight, innovation and enablement for utilities that embrace them. This helps utilities plan for their future to align with customers’ needs, the changing market and create performance-based outcomes. Delivering key information to the right place and at the right time will improve grid efficiency, reliability and safety, thereby transforming customer service and decreasing operational costs.

Distributed intelligence is the future of forward-looking utilities that are always in the know about their customers, their grid and the market needs. The possibilities are endless.

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Tim Driscoll is director of information management outcomes at Itron, Inc. He has over 30 years of experience in the utility industry and is a pioneer in the distributed intelligence field, having demonstrated the utility industry's first meter-based DI applications in 2015, the first field deployment of DI applications in 2018, and overseeing the "app" model concept for deployment of DI applications to meters.

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